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Proper Green: Should I buy organic or local food?

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Organic and local food both benefit the environment, but is one better than the other? Proper Green shares a few thoughts on the matter.
Dear Proper Green,

I try to buy organic whenever possible. I also try to buy at my local farmer’s markets. However, the local markets do not sell organic produce. Which is better for me and the environment?

-Sharon H.

Dear Sharon,

This is a great question. I’m sure you’re not alone in navigating this challenge each time you make your grocery list, and for good reason. Research has shown the benefits of buying and consuming organic food rather than non-organic food, and the benefits of buying local food rather than non-local food, but there are few published studies that have taken a look at organic versus local food and could provide us with a single, clear-cut answer to your question.

Ultimately, both options help the environment, and most likely have meaningful benefits for your health and the economy, too. Here are a few tips to help you develop your own personal preference — no matter what you choose, you can rest assured you’re making a choice that has a positive impact on the environment.

First, familiarize yourself with some general pros and cons for each option:

Local Food

  • Environment: Food produced in your area has generally traveled fewer miles to get to the store, and then to your home. Those fewer miles can mean less gas used in transport, and therefore, less pollution. Some people point out, though, that local driving results in more stops, starts, and idling than long highway drives would.
  • Health: When a food is produced locally, it has probably been produced in the season it is naturally meant to grow in, and spends less time in transit — so you get fresher produce, which retains more nutrients. Like any other farmer, industrial or not, there’s a chance your local one uses chemicals to enhance his yield. In large quantities, some of the common chemicals used can cause health issues.
  • Economy: Purchasing food grown by a local farmer supports your local economy, helping to keep jobs and money in your neighborhood. If you ultimately want to support organic and your local farm isn’t an organic operation, you could be inadvertently supporting growing methods you don’t agree with.

Organic Food

  • Environment: Food that is certified organic has been produced in a way that optimizes the health of the soil, plants, animals, and people touched by its growing and production processes. It does not take into account food miles, though, so many organic foods can rack up a lot of food miles transporting food from a central hub throughout the country before reaching you.
  • Health: Organic farming focuses on natural biological cycles for food production, so fewer potentially harmful chemicals are necessary. However, the USDA notes that “Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues.”
  • Economy: As with anything, purchasing organic products shows your support for organic methods and could encourage an increase in organic production. Like the con for local food, though: If you ultimately want to support your local economy but no nearby farms are organic, you’ll have a tough choice to make. Keep in mind, too, that earning USDA Organic certification costs money. Sometimes, small businesses can’t afford the certification process, so even though they may meet all the criteria, they can’t use the seal.

Then, get specific: Do you have a favorite organic brand or local farmer? Check out their websites to read about their practices, or chat up your local guy next time you’re at the farmer’s market. Ask the farmers you buy from about their practices. You can go big to get a general idea — How do they raise and treat their animals and crops? — or get more specific: Do they use fertilizers? Are their hens allowed to roam an open field? Ask about whatever concerns you the most, and remember that both organic and local are great green options.

Do you shop local or organic? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
About Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and the environment are still evolving) to providing easy ways to make your every day more sustainable, Proper Green aims to help smooth the way with answers to questions that are important to you!

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Proper Green
Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and... more

  • Jo A. 4 years ago
    Several of our grocery stores in the summer, use local growers for their produce, plus we have several farmers markets that we go to. I also grow some things myself and try to can what we don't eat right away. Sister-in-law wants to learn how to can, so I'll show her in the fall.
  • barb c. 4 years ago
    I buy organic in summer
  • Janina D. 4 years ago
    Since the Winter is so long, it's too expensive to buy organic in Minneapolis, MN.
    I buy organic as soon as Spring rolls into Summer months!
  • Jeffrey M. 4 years ago
    Organic is the best way to go when preparing meals for my family. I just wish finding organic food wasn't so difficult in my area.
  • Neva S. 4 years ago
    Yeah, we shop the local farmer's market as often as possible. So much better when it's picked closer to ripe instead of the green stuff shipped into the grocers!
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